This exhibition explores the first decade of the work of Jasper Johns. It is not, however, a survey of Johns’ painting between 1955 and 1965. Instead, it concerns groups of works that intersect through Johns’ use of four related motifs: the target (a readymade image); the “device” (the pivoted slat used to scrape paint); the stenciled naming of colors; and the cast or imprint of the body. Each motif manifests or stands for a quasi-mechanical procedure: rotation (target); appending an object (device) and scraping paint; stenciling language (naming of colors); imprinting the face, feet, and above all, the artist’s hand. These motifs appear either alone or together in various combinations, and they constitute an inventory of operations for art-making through which Johns can be said to have evaded conventions of both abstraction and figuration, while engaging elements of both.
In Periscope (Hart Crane) Johns combined all four motifs. He applied the naming of colors and imprint of the body to a work in which a scraping device has described a semicircular target. The stenciled words RED, YELLOW, and BLUE signify color through language, naming but not employing the colors themselves, as the palette is restricted to black, white, and gray; and a device scrape replaces the device as attached object, while a palm print at the end of a painted slatlike form implies that the artist’s own arm is a device—a mechanical tool. (The extended arm has also been taken to refer to the American poet Hart Crane’s suicide by drowning in 1932.)Through the four motifs and the operations they embody, Johns addresses nothing less than the very condition of art at midcentury. What forms of art-making, the artist seems to ask, were still viable in an era when conventional practices of art had been thrown into doubt?